Germany has more solar power than anywhere else in the world, and it gets about twice as much power from renewable sources compared to the U.S. But even though the country considers itself a leader in clean energy, it also happens to lead the world in production of a certain kind of particularly dirty coal.
In the 1970s, the country started carving out giant open mines for lignite (or brown coal), taking down forests, farms, and even entire villages along the way. The largest is the Hambach Mine, the biggest human-made hole in Europe, at nearly 1,500 feet deep. Photographer Bernhard Lang recently visited the mine to take aerial photos of the site.
Everything at the mine is at a giant scale: The machines inside, scooping out coal and moving around sand and dirt, are each the height of 30-story office buildings and twice as long as soccer fields.
“From above, the scenery with these huge ‘monsters’ in this strange mining surroundings, reminded me of another barren planet out of a science fiction movie,” says Lang. “It was also impressive to see the immense dimensions of these reclaimers in comparison to the usual diggers standing next to them, looking tiny.”
The mine produces about 30 million tons of brown coal a year, and it’s expected to keep pumping it out for another 25 to 30 years–despite the fact that it’s even more polluting than the regular “hard coal” that’s mined deep underground, and that the government is aiming to use 80% renewable energy by 2050.
But after Fukushima, Germany decided to shut down nuclear power plants, and brown coal is a cheap and available way to keep power flowing as more renewable plants come online. So for now, even though older hard coal mines are being phased out in the next few years, brown coal pits continue to expand, threatening to swallow up more nearby towns.
As he flew over the Hambach mine, Lang says he was struck by the weird beauty of the patterns the machinery left in the dirt, “looking like abstract paintings.” But he also wanted to show a problem that hasn’t necessarily gotten that much attention in a country that’s trying to be greener.
“For me, images of opencast brown coal mining with its huge machines biting into the soil show quite directly the human impact on, and exploitation of, our environment,” he says.